The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 5: The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (Umberto Eco, 2004; translated from the Italian by Geoffrey Brock)

Books remaining: 21. Weeks remaining: 43.

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana - Umberto Eco

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana – Umberto Eco

Memory can also be beautiful …

Someone said that it acts like a convergent lens in a camera obscura: it focuses everything, and the image that results from it is much more beautiful than the original. 

 

I had a false start with E.

 

 

 

There were only three author choices, Anne Enright (The Gathering), Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) or Umberto Eco (a choice of The Name of the Rose, Foucalt’s Pendulum or The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana.

 

The Gathering - Anne Enright

Nah

Enright’s The Gathering appealed so little I might just get rid of it now.

Can’t be bothered with another multigenerational family epic right now, even if it did win the 2007 Man Booker prize.

See? I am improving!

 

 

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius - Dave Eggers

A sure bet?

So I chose Eggers. A colleague loved it. The title intrigued. The blurb was mysterious.

But I saw after the first chapter that it featured a dying parent. I have an unerring talent in picking picking books and movies unwitting that they are about about death, cancer and infirmity. These are very uncomfortable, making me weep immoderately.

 

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius back cover

Thanks for the warning, jerks!

 

This time, I got to the mother spitting green sputum into a towel and signed off, despite Eggers’ beguiling writing.

Sputum warnings should be included on the cover.

 

 

 

 

 

The Name of the Rose

Failed

Foucalt's Pendulum

Even more failed

That left Eco. Felt ashamed because owned three and had not read any. I tried the Rose and Pendulum years ago. Doubtless because they made me use my brain, I speedily gave up on each.

 

 

I thought third time had to be a charm – and, truly, I was charmed upon beginning The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana.

Antiquarian book dealer Yambo wakes up in hospital rendered amnesiac by some kind of illness. He doesn’t remember his life or his wife, who eventually gets to take him back to their Milan home to recover.

He does remember, in detail, his lifetime collection of quotes about fog – yep, 150 pages of literary quotations on fog. He doesn’t know why any longer, obviously, but he has always been obsessed with fog.

Much like the one now enshrouding his memory, the uni student inside me murmurs.

Yambo tries to find reasons for his obsession, but his encounters with people and places he once knew provoke no recognition, save for the odd “mysterious flame” that flares at the sight of an object or the sound of some words.

It begins as a book with a mystery at its heart, drenched in literary allusion, but by no means inaccessible, lit on every page by an easy wit and simplicity.

Then Yambo travels to the country to stay in the old family home he grew up in during WWII, hoping that if he goes through every box, touches every toy, and reads every book he did as a boy, he will rediscover the secret of who he is.

As we travel with him through this illustrated novel, we see pages upon pages of pictures –book and comic covers, magazine and record covers, song lyrics, quotations, advertisements. It’s a feast for the eyes as well as the mind, in which Eco explores the visual nature of memory.

Illustrations in Umberto Eco's The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana“I’ll remember the photo from now on, but not them.”

“Who knows how many times over the past thirty years you were reminded of them because you kept seeing this photo? You can’t think of memory as a warehouse where you deposit past events and retrieve them later just as they were when you put them there.”

 

Things slow right down when Yambo starts reliving Fascist Italy in painful detail, down to every nationalist song lyric and propagandised comic book. Rich illustrations evoke a vanished world in almost dismaying detail.

Illustrations in Umberto Eco's The Mysterious Flame of Queen LoanaThe memory of one day blurs into the next. I know only that I was reading in a wild, disorderly fashion. I did not read everything word for word. Some books and magazines I skimmed as though I was flying over a landscape.

Meanwhile, I felt seriously bogged down, rather than anything remotely like flying.

 

If not for the Project I would have abandoned the thing altogether. The endless recitations of plots of long-dead adventure serials left me cold. Like Yambo, I got sick of skim-reading song lyrics, book plots and comic titles assembled in such volume. I would challenge anyone to actually read every one of those lyrics, and can only hope that I was only supposed, like Yambo, just to scan them in the vain hope they would end up meaning something.

In any case, it was undeniable that there in Solara every word gave rise to another. Would I be able to climb back up that chain to the final word? What would it be? “I”?

Looking back I wonder if this was Eco’s aim – to show Yambo’s sense of overwhelm and frustration at the pointless drudgery of such an exercise, and to make the reader wonder with him whether a human being can ever be entirely encapsulated in images and words.

I said to myself: Yambo, your memory is made of paper. Not of neurons, but of pages. Maybe someday someone invent an electronic contraption allowing people to travel by computer along all the pages ever written, from the beginning of the world until today, and to pass from one to the other with the touch of a finger, without knowing any longer where or who they are, and then everyone will be like you.

Yambo finally makes a discovery, and his quest to rediscover the memory underlying it all inches forward. There is exquisite philosophy here, and suspense – but by now only my body was still curled up with the book. My mind was already straying back to the shelf. I forced myself to finish it but when I did, felt nothing but profound relief.

I did get a cool quote that made me think of my Curing project, though:

“I have so many books. Sorry, we do.” 

“Five thousand here. And there’s always some imbecile who comes over and says, how many books do you have, have you read them all?” 

“And what do I say?”

“Usually you say: not one, why else would I be keeping them here? Do you by chance keep tins of meat after you’ve emptied them? As for the five thousand I’ve already read, I gave them away to prisons and hospitals. And the imbecile reels.”

Keep or let go? Let go. Both pictures and ideas are beautiful, and a book can be great without ever making you warm and fuzzy, but I have no-one I would want to lend this to. Purely as a collector’s item, it will give someone browsing in an opportunity shop a thrill.

If only I knew someone who needed the ultimate collection of literary quotes about fog, or someone with a passion for fascist Italian history – everyone’s favourite dinner party guest.

Perhaps it is telling that if I actually met someone who told me they enjoyed brushing up on fascist history and collecting fog quotes, I might run away before even thinking to say “hey I have just the book for you”.

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Man Stroke Woman (2005)

British comedy sketch show is more or less it.

But I like this! Is good! Stars, among other most excellently comedic people, Nick Frost, the guy who was in Shaun of the Dead (among other things).

And just ridiculous enough to please those of a slightly sadistic bent who like things like Shaun of the Dead, The IT Crowd, or Black Books.

Disclaimer: So far, I’ve only watched the first episode.

Death of a Murderer (Rupert Thomson, 2007)

 

The book takes place over a single night after the death of serial killer Myra Hindley, partner of Ian Brady. Together, they committed the Moors Murders and earned themselves eternal hatred from all those who ever heard of them.

Thomson doesn’t name Myra Hindley; he doesn’t have to. The details that emerge make her identity clear.

It is the night before her funeral and Billy Tyler is a policeman charged with guarding her body overnight, as  mob violence threatens from the emotional public around the mortuary.

But not only the public is feeling irrational fear. Billy’s wife Sue also feels that the corpse must be malevolent in some way. She begs him not to take the job.

However, being a sensible and stolid English chap, Billy accepts the job and does it faithfully.

And as Hindley begins to make her presence felt, Billy’s thoughts and memories, worries, and guilt over past temptations unfurl alongside it.

The idea is rooted in fact but wholly a product of the imagination. I have a particular soft spot for novels that do this: take reality and then do whatever the hell they want with it.

Thomson never trivialises the atrocious story of the Moors Murders, but uses it to explore the emotional reactions that people attach to such horrific crimes as these against children. He examines the way we relate to these events within our minds. He questions the differences between human beings once pretence and defense is stripped away and uncertainty allowed in. Where is the line drawn between sane and insane – murderous or law-abiding?

The structure is one of stretched and distorted time. Thomson takes readers on a journey of heightened psychological awareness in a way that calls to mind something like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. Like Mrs Dalloway, it is the more powerful for its sense of limbo and existence outside ordinary time – and space, since the action in its entirety happens within one building and within Billy’s mind. This tightly controlled narrative drive swings between the present nothingness, Billy’s agony of waiting, the almost sensory-deprivation of the mortuary and Hindley’s locked cabinet, and the rich sensory world of the memory. These regular swings mark the passage of time throughout the night with with pendulum-like regularity.

Freedom is found in the words. Thomson ticks the poetry box by showing you pictures as memories and experiences, rather than telling you stories. For a book whose action basically consists of a man sitting in a room with a dead body, this is a compulsive read with a momentum all of its own.

Thomson’s restraint, and the sheer power of his imagination, are a formidable combination.  His atmosphere is intensified by the scarcity of outside characters, apart from brief appearances by a couple of others and Billy’s wife, artfully sketched, that serve to heighten rather than relieve the almost unbearable tension and sense of solitude. These characters are not shallow; they are only quickly glimpsed, but Thomson shines a penetrating light upon their hopes and fears as much as on Billy’s.

The characters complement the atmosphere that is built in the mortuary, a still, awfully silent place. In a passage that echoes this feeling of solitude and connects it to the past, Billy remembers visiting the place Hindley and Brady buried their victims, feeling there as he does in the present:

“a silence that was eerily alive, like the silence when you answer the phone and there’s someone on the other end not talking.”

The book is, as you can imagine, driven and buoyed by sheer description, and Thomson is master of the language he commands. To give you a taste, he describes the chapel at the mortuary where people come to pay their respects or identify their next-of-kin;

“In this room people’s worst fears would become a reality, and the air was petrified, stale, glassy with shock.”

Details and feelings are magnified through reference to the senses. Thomson transports readers through time by describing Billy’s experience of his memories; what he smelled, tasted, saw, felt. Each memory ties to his thoughts about Hindley; what she has done; what it takes to make someone commit acts of horror. At what point did she become this person? Was it in childhood? Billy remembers an incident in his childhood, beginning with the innocent rebellion of illicit drinking with an older, naughtier friend, and ending in confusion and violence.

He remembers every detail, even the vodka.

“It was warm and slightly oily, and he shivered as it went down”. 

Was a shot of vodka ever before so ominous? Yet when we hear this, we remember. We know, and we become afraid.

Thomson repeatedly calls attention to these connections between the past and present, memories and actions, through the the significance he attaches to ordinary physical objects, like Fanta, crisps and Hindley’s almost-final resting place: a cabinet with a cold handle. The objects themselves are unimportant, but Thomson understands that the way they interact with our emotions and senses triggers thoughts and memories – many of them things you would rather stay buried.

Death of a Murderer is marked by this feeling of things lying in wait, just underneath the surface.

Billy remembers his struggle to understand the murders when they occurred, and falls into the memory of another expedition into a favourite haunt of Brady and Hindley. Just before he decides to leave, he imagines a child holding the hand of an adult, slowly disappearing from view.

“The streams had frozen over; black water squirmed through narrow channels beneath the ice … once again, he had the feeling that there was something to be discovered, but it was like having a word on the tip of your tongue and knowing that you would never remember it. There were things here that couldn’t be grasped or squared away – not by him, in any case.”  

I won’t forget this book in a hurry. I would recommend it to anyone, even someone disgusted by the concept.

I was, in fact, haunted by this book; sorry to use the word; but a book you still think about a year after you finish it certainly qualifies.

What gives the story its power is the unease at its core: the unanswered question, the mystery at its centre: Why?